People often take steps to deter thieves from their homes and vehicles, but sometimes the most sought after items are sitting unprotected in a mailbox in the front yard.
The U.S. Postal Service estimates 700 million pieces of mail is traveling through the nation's mail stream on any given day. While the majority ends up with the rightful addressee, some will end up in the hands of thieves who are looking for quick cash or are part of a larger identity theft ring.
Mail theft is a growing crime, particularly in western states. On average the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, which is tasked with investigating all crimes involving mail, arrests 10,000 suspected criminals on a variety of offenses with the largest being for mail theft and possession of stolen mail. But recently as the rate of thefts is growing law enforcement agencies are finding it increasingly difficult to catch and prosecute the perpetrators because of a lack of resources and state laws that have lessened the penalties.
"Mail theft is one of our biggest challenges," said Rafael Nunez, the inspector in charge for the U.S. Postal Inspection Service's San Francisco division. "We have to harden the target because we are not going to arrest our way out of this."
Nunez was among a handful of representatives brought together by U.S. Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Turlock) to discuss the problem of mail theft and potential avenues to take to curb the rate of occurrences.
"My goal is to make sure the people I represent are well aware of how they can protect themselves," Denham said.
Mail theft has become particularly prevalent in California, especially along the Highway 99 corridor from Bakersfield to Sacramento, which Nunez described as a "hotbed of activity" and largely fuel by methamphetamine use.
"A drug user might be paid $30 or $40 for a bag of mail," Nunez said. "That thief might not be the same person that is cashing the stolen checks."
The cluster mailboxes found in newer developments are often favorite targets of the thieves because they have a chance to steal a large volume of mail in one spot. They also become less secure after one or two break-ins. But the thieves will also target individual mailboxes in older neighborhoods and along rural road and collection boxes, even the ones right in front of post offices.
"They're stealing the whole box if necessary," said Modesto Postmaster Jennifer Gowans. "They can get into the blue collection boxes within a few minutes."
The best way to curb mail theft is to make sure the mail is removed as promptly as possible after delivery and not to let it sit overnight in the mailbox.
"If the mail is removed then the criminal will go somewhere else," Gowans said.
Another option to help prevent mail theft - at least for individual users - is to invest in mailboxes with greater security features. People can purchase individual mailboxes that have locks and slots that are harder to pry open, Gowans explained.
"They are not always cheap, but they are worth the peace of mind," Gowans said.
Renting a post office box is another option to keep mail safe from thieves.
Outside of visible damage like pry marks it might not be obvious that a mail theft has occurred. Some of the thieves are using crudely made counterfeit keys that can open the community mailboxes and are taking only the mail they believe to have value and leaving behind other pieces. Residents might not notice the absence of important items and therefore not know they are a victim of mail theft.
"Sometimes people don't find out there has been a mail theft until they become a victim of identity theft," Nunez said.
Even when individuals are caught breaking into mailboxes or with stolen mail, the prosecution of such offenses has various hurdles to overcome. Mail theft is a felony crime in California, but under AB 109 it is an offense that requires convictions be served at county jails and not state prisons, explained Stanislaus County District Attorney Birgit Fladager.
To charge someone with mail theft they have to actually be caught breaking into the mailbox, or there needs to be compelling evidence that shows they were responsible for the theft. More often, people caught with mail not belonging to them are charged with possession of stolen property. Under Prop 47 if the value of the stolen mail is less than $950 it is considered a misdemeanor and the suspect is issued a citation.
"The deterrent factor is almost nonexistent," Fladager said.
Mail theft is also a federal crime, but federal prosecutors can't go after each little theft because of a lack of resources.
"The federal jurisdictions don't always have that many lawyers, so they have to be picky about the cases that they take," Fladager said.
Those who find themselves the victim of mail thefts are advised to report the theft to the local law enforcement agency and to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, even if the chance of catching the actually thief appears unlikely.
"People want crimes solved right away, but it's not always that simple," Nunez said. "But reporting it helps us build up our intelligence and our cases," Nunez said.